Houston Police Sgt. Robert Ruiz looks back on decades of crime in the city before retiring

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) – On a rainy day on Houston’s east side, a veteran police sergeant prepares to turn in his uniform.

“I feel like I’m getting off right now because I know there are a lot of issues within the police department,” he said. “I’ve never seen myself as someone who would run away from a problem – always towards it.”

Sergeant Robert Ruiz has been running since he was 19 when he joined the department in 1980.

“I wasn’t old enough to buy bullets or a gun. I remember my mom had to buy bullets for me, so it was kind of embarrassing,” he said, recalling with a chuckle.

Back then, Houston was growing fast. When the Oilers sang “Luv ya Blue” and Nolan Ryan picked up Baseball’s first million-dollar contract, the city’s richest practically drowned in oil money.

But by the early 1980s, Houston was being dubbed the county’s homicide capital.

Houston had a record 678 murders in 1982. Confidence was at an all-time low after the assassination of Jose Campos Torres, a Mexican-US Army veteran, who was beaten by Houston police officers who then dropped him off in Buffalo Bayou.

“It was bad for me in the 80s. I can’t say that for everyone. I mean, I was called a traitor,” Ruiz explained. “I got a call from my own community, in other words, because the Hispanic community was very suspicious of the police.”

The police were understaffed and underfunded. Calling the switchboard often meant finding a pay phone.

Then the new boss started a program he called “neighborhood-oriented policing.”

“We hated it. We called it ‘No officers on patrol’ because we were very understaffed and now you’re suddenly pulling officers out to meet with the public,” Ruiz said. “Sometimes it was kind of an us-versus-them, them-versus-us attitude.”

Violent crime remained high throughout the decade. People from all over the world moved to Houston to take advantage of an opportunity when oil prices fell and then boomed again. In 1991, our city witnessed 608 murders.

“There are some things that will always haunt me,” Ruiz recalled. “A child dying in your hands while you’re doing CPR. A young lady looking at you who has had her throat cut. You look into the eyes that stare at you and there is nothing you can do.”

In 1993, 14-year-old Jennifer Ertman and 16-year-old Elizabeth Pena were raped, tortured and murdered by a group of six gang members in Oak Forest.

RELATED: Haunting murders of two Houston teens 25 years ago leave a lasting legacy for victims’ rights

For the first time, Houston police have had to acknowledge a gang problem. Suddenly, “neighborhood policing,” a program the police union refused to support, became essential.

“I’ve evolved. Now, looking back, I’m glad we did that because we’ve built relationships with church leaders, church activists, with pastors and with the general public out there,” Ruiz said.

The city added specialized units for the first time.

“We used to practice zero tolerance, we would go out and arrest everyone, give them tickets, and that was fine. But often you only hurt the people who lived in the area,” he said. “We’ve gotten better at targeting the people committing the crime.”

Over the next two decades, violent crime in our city steadily declined. But since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Houston’s homicides have risen 71%, and the trends are worrying.

“Back then there were so-called ‘Saturday Night Specials’. Such small arms could be bought at a pawn shop. Saturday night specials. We saw that,” Ruiz explained. “We didn’t see the firepower you’re seeing now.”

Our police department still uses strategies such as specialized crime units and what we now call community engagement.

But new threats like 3D printed weapons and cybercrime require new ideas. And for this sergeant, every solution is rooted in relationships.

“There’s a saying that 20% of the criminals are involved in 80% of the crimes, and I really believe that,” he said. “It is different. I won’t say it’s not different, but it goes in cycles.”

As this current cycle grows deadlier, Ruiz thinks of his wife and also of his five children. One of them is the proud Sgt. Robert Ruiz jr.

“I’m proud of my son. I’m optimistic because of him,” he said, swallowing with emotion. “I see what he and his colleagues are doing. That makes me optimistic.”

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Copyright © 2022 KTRK-TV. All rights reserved. Houston Police Sgt. Robert Ruiz looks back on decades of crime in the city before retiring

Dais Johnston

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